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What just happened in The Gambia is a big deal for democracy in Africa

Gambian President Adama Barrow greets the crowds after arriving at Banjul airport in Gambia, Jan. 26, 2017, after flying in from Dakar, Senegal. (Credit: AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Casual readers who pay attention to politics across sub-Saharan Africa may be forgiven for assuming many government leaders tend to give up power very reluctantly, often only after some kind of violent conflict.

That’s why what happened in The Gambia recently (and they do insist you capitalize The, by the way) is so historical and promising.

Pressure from neighboring nations, generally referred to as the Economic Community of West African states (ECOWAS) and to some extent the international community, forced former President Yahya Jammeh to step down as leader of the small nation on Friday, handing over power to Adama Barrow.

In December, Barrow was democratically elected as the new leader of The Gambia. Initially Jammeh accepted defeat in the polls, but soon after backtracked on his decision to stand down.

From the beginning of the political impasse, leaders throughout the West African region were vocal in calling for Jammeh to recognize the election and stand down – threatening him with military action if he did not comply and honor the election outcome.

By the end of last week, member states had reached a political agreement to mobilize Senegalese peacekeeping troops to enter The Gambia and force out Jammeh. This was done peacefully, with Jammeh finally admitting defeat on Friday.

With Barrow sworn in as president, some are starting to look at how the resolution of the crisis in The Gambia – during an age of increased isolationism – is an example of how multilateralism can help to increase collective security.

“You can hail the latest intervention as a success – both from the point of view of how quickly it took ECOWAS to reach consensus on putting together a regional force and the fact that the intervention was not bloody,” Manji Cheto, senior vice president of political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence, told Humanosphere.

Calestous Juma, professor of development at Harvard University, said that the ECOWAS model is one that other blocs can learn from.

“West Africa has the longest record of regional peacekeeping. Of Africa’s regional bodies, ECOWAS has the most experience in peacekeeping,” Juma told Humanosphere. “Their role in The Gambia is a continuation of that tradition. Other regional bodies could learn from its experience.”

In recent years the organization has intervened with ground troops in Sierra Leone in 1997, Côte d’Ivoire in 2011 and Mali in 2013. These crises were solved peacefully, showing that regional stability is assured through cooperation.

Some argue that the speed of ECOWAS’ actions in The Gambia resulted through Senegal’s membership on the U.N. Security Council, which has increased the region’s global influence during the crisis.

Senegal called for a U.N. Security Council resolution on the crisis in The Gambia earlier this month; a move backed unanimously by the Council.

“Other geopolitical dynamics are also relevant to emphasize, such as The Gambia’s relations with Senegal. Senegal’s seat on the U.N. Security Council is also a potential driving force here,” Olivier Milland, political risk analyst at Allan and Associates, told Humanosphere.

In December Senegal co-sponsored a resolution in the Security Council, along with New Zealand, to oppose illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and in Jerusalem; the motion was passed by the Council.

“Senegal’s role during the U.N. resolution on Israel is probably a good example that the country is looking to play a more proactive role in international politics during its time on the Security Council,” Milland said, adding that “it is very possible that it [Senegal’s membership] has emboldened ECOWAS leaders.”

While Western powers look to keep their own houses in order, ECOWAS nations have acted together to solve what it sees as a collective problem.

Paolo, Gaibazzi, research fellow at the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin, argued that growing isolationism the world over allowed regional players to step into the fray to solve the crisis in The Gambia.

“One might also ask whether key power players in West Africa like the U.S., France and, to an extent, the U.K. might have preferred to keep out of the matter altogether, given that they are undergoing critical transitions at home and in their neighborhood.”

Though the early signs are encouraging, it still remains to be seen whether The Gambia can solve its own internal political issues under the new Barrow leadership.

“So the question is now what? Adama Barrow will enter office needing to re-establish security, persuade the tens of thousands of Gambians who fled the country in anticipation of post-election violence to return, and get to the bottom of reports that Jammeh stole millions on his way out of office,” Kelsey Lilley, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center told Humanosphere, referring to claims that Jammeh stole up to $11 million from the the country’s coffers before leaving standing down as president.

Although Barrow has a challenge on his hands in trying to stabilize the country, early indications suggest that cooperation between nations creates shared peace and stability across nations.

“Security is improved when states work together to obtain peace, but only if their national leaders show leadership in that direction, which ECOWAS has manifestly done,” Milland said.


About Author

Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at